"Breathtaking" is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Despite the ambitions of neo-bohemians, artwalks and chapbooks are rarely really breathtaking, and even beautiful sunsets get old, just like beautiful women. But "breathtaking" is the adjective that FAUST calls to mind right from the start, when a trio of demonic horsemen emerge from the clouds, steeds snorting smoke.
The Faust legend is old, much older than Goethe's famous incarnation of it. Shakespeare competitor Christopher Marlowe wrote a stage version of it in 1604, based on the life of a real alchemist and astrologer. In this Murnau film, Faust is a sort of local shaman/Mr. Fixit, using protean scientific methods to salve local illnesses. But that's the action at the microscopic level. FAUST actually starts at the cosmic level, with the devil wagering that he can divide Faust from his divine nature. An angel takes the bet.
It's been forever since I read Faust, so I'm not sure which elements are shared or distinct between the film and its literary ancestors. I loved the Job overtures, with heaven and hell symbolically placing mankind's performance review in one man's hands. And Faust fumbles our ball a lot in this, but initially it's the plague that drives him into Mephisto's arms. He is frustrated because none of his knowledge can save his fellow citizens from death by plague. The plague that the devil unleashes in this momentous scene.
Dude, intellectually I know that's a guy standing over a miniature set, but Murnau does such a fantastic job at constructing the scenes that I just gasped when the demon appeared and sent the plague into the village. And during the fair, too, what a dick!
The horror elements of this get scaled back a bit as the film proceeds, although Mephisto's debut is certainly creepy enough. He also sports a kind of proto-Exorcist look during one of the film's many fine FX scenes.
Although Faust's consent to his Faustian bargain is well-intentioned, the townspeople don't see it that way once they realize that he's not right with God. To thank him for chancing his soul to spare their lives, they throw rocks at his face. At this point, Faust's more selfish urges come to the fore. Mephisto gives him youth, then arranges a tryst with a beautiful aristocrat (who immediately dumps her fiancee once she sees a Mephisto-conjured gem).
Soon enough, Faust falls for a girl from his village named Gretchen. Mephisto again is the worldly wingman, winning the lady's ardent heart with pretty very sparkly object-things. The temptation subtext that recurs here is quite great, as is the recurring motif of the mirror as a flag for sinful desire.
At this point, FAUST starts to lose a bit of the unstoppability that it has previously demonstrated. The slow romance between Faust and Gretchen takes center stage and Mephisto is kicked into the background, along with a comedic aunt.
Thankfully, this wrong turn is quickly righted, as FAUST gets even more myopic and focuses on the travails of Gretchen. These scenes provide a 180 from the light rom-com of the pastoral scenes and are essentially woman-misfortune deathporn of the Roaring Twenties. It's here that we also start to see humanity from Satan's POV, as crowds of sniggering assholes gawk at the chained Gretchen.
Gretchen could have been a throwaway good-girl love interest, but FAUST gives her tons of depth. She becomes the film's Christ character through her splendid display of self-sacrifice and even has visions like an Old Testament prophet.
Camilla Horn is the film's MVP as Gretchen. As mammoth in scope as the first half gets, these final scenes are the most affecting. Without them, this would be a spectacle, but basically remote and academic. The Gretchen scenes rehumanize FAUST (and Faust!). They turn what would have been a very good technical achievement into a classic and definitive masterwork.
Choosing between this and CALIGARI was a nightmare. If the comedy-aunt scenes had been excised, FAUST would be #1. Even so, you should rush right out (via a car, or Roku or YouTube) and see this. It's exquisite and breathtaking, the end.
TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
4. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
5. The Unknown (1927)
6. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
7. The Wind (1928)
8. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
9. A Page of Madness (1926)
10. The Cat and the Canary (1927)